Progression of Art
Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror
This iconic self-portrait shows the artist, aged twenty-one, reflected as he looks into what appears to be a mirror. His distorted hand, extenuated, fills the lower part of the image, inviting the viewer in to the intimate scene. Beautiful, almost angelic, his gaze is introspective and focused with a still intensity. The fabrics of his clothing, the multicolored patches of expensive fur, the lacy frill of his sleeve, and the white of his neckline are rendered with a subtle play of light that seems precise though the brushstrokes are almost impressionistic.
The artist intended this as a tour de force, as it was one of the paintings he took with him to Rome when seeking the patronage of Pope Clement VII. The work was remarkably innovative, as he painted the image on a convex panel. Supposedly he had a carpenter make a wooden ball that was then sawed in half, so that the work would resemble a barber's mirror. Most Renaissance artists regarded the mirror as a tool for observation and normalized images painted from reflections. But Parmigianino kept the distortions in order to create a complex play upon the nature of perception itself.
The self-reflexivity in the work was remarkably modern. Art critic Michael Glover wrote, the result is "one of the most inscrutable portraits in the entire Western canon." Additionally, art historians David G. Stork and Yasuo Furuichi stated, his "interest in psychological introspection, belief in a shifting impermanent visual reality, experimentation in the dark sciences of alchemy, wit, and youthful desire to demonstrate his artistic prowess all find their expression."
Parmigianino became one of the most influential of the Mannerists, even though he died at the age of thirty-seven. His influence extended to print making and he has been called the "father of etching." John Ashbery, the American poet and critic, wrote his book length poem Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror (1975), inspired by this piece.
Oil on convex panel - Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna, Austria
Deposition from the Cross
This altarpiece depicts a swirl of stricken and grieving figures as they lower the dead body of Christ, his pale elongated torso depicted in a serpentine curve that extends through the lower center of the work. The Virgin Mary, dressed in blue, faints in the upper right. Though the work is thought to be the deposition from the cross, the artist has innovatively left out the cross, and has also added a number of figures, including the man whose face glimpsed at the far right, thought to be a self-portrait of the artist. Because the painting's composition emphasizes the swirling gestures of figures and robes, each face is like a still point of isolation, its white shocked expression echoing the face of the dead Christ.
This work marked the arrival of the Mannerist style with its unusual color palette, its elongated figures in distorted poses, and its creation of an unrealistic pictorial space. Pontormo's influence was, perhaps, greatest upon Bronzino, though he also influenced Vasari and El Greco, as well as other lesser-known artists of the time like Morandini, Naldini, and Salviati.
Oil on canvas - Church of Santa Felicita, Florence
Madonna with the Long Neck
This work focuses on the Madonna, whose extenuated limbs and monumental scale fill the center of the canvas. A nude infant Jesus reclines on his mother's lap while angels crowd around them. His pale form, limp arms, and closed eyes create a disconcerting effect reminiscent of a woeful Pietà. Mary's expression is also nontraditional. As she holds elegant but overly long fingers to her heart, looking down with a slight smile, she seems bemused and distanced. A dissonance results between the haunting religious image and its portrait of what could be a fashionable but emotionally disconnected aristocrat. The angels are much more animated, but evoke the curiosity and liveliness of ordinary children more than a divine presence. The architectural setting, while conveying a 'classical' effect, is not classically rendered with linear perspective, and an unsettling ambiguity results. To the right of the column, the very small figure of St. Jerome, his limbs elongated, holds out a scroll while looking back over his shoulder.
The work was popularly titled "Madonna with the Long Neck," as Mary's graceful linearity evokes a swan. In 1534 this work was commissioned for Francesco Tagliaferri's funerary chapel in Parma but left incomplete in 1540 when the artist died. Perhaps, no other work has so come to characterize the Mannerist approach, as the artist pulled out all the stops in creating an unorthodox treatment of space and the figure. As E. H. Gombrich wrote, "Instead of distributing his figures in equal pairs on both sides of the Madonna, he crammed a jostling crowd of angels into a narrow corner, and left the other side wide open to show the tall figure of the prophet, so reduced in size through the distance that he hardly reaches the Madonna's knee. There can be no doubt, then, that if this be madness there is method in it." The Madonna's right foot seems to extend beyond the pictorial plane, as if into the viewer's space, and suggest that the artist's intent was to innovatively involve the viewer in its riddle of relationship and meaning.
Oil on wood - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
Eleanor of Toledo
This portrait shows Eleanor of Toledo, the Spanish wife of Cosimo I de' Medici, then the Grand Duke of Tuscany, and one of their sons on her right. Scholars debate which of the couple's three sons is depicted, though most hold that, according to the painting's date, it must be their middle son, Giovanni. Eleanor's hand rests on her son's shoulder, and the gesture, combined with her wearing a dress with a pomegranate motif symbolizing motherhood, refers to her role as a kind of secular Madonna.
This portrait was part of a pair, the other being Bronzino's portrait of Cosimo I. The painting was intended to be an idealized portrait, reflecting the stability of the ruler, the wealth and dignity of his family, but the overall effect is of an inscrutable distance, as the artist, a noted poet, wrote, "steel inside and ice without." Eleanor's expression is unreadable, her appearance, a mask creating an impenetrable social presence. As art critic James Hall noted, in the work, "Naturalism is reined in by quasi-heraldic colors, contours, patterns and shapes. His power-dressed women both seduce and awe."
A great deal of emphasis is given to the expensive silk dress, brocaded with black arabesques and gold weft loops, leading some critics to argue that the work was also, in effect, a pioneering use of product placement, advocating for the Florentine silk industry which Cosimo I had revived. Art critic Roderick Conway Morris wrote, "Most famous is the majestic, Madonna-like picture of Cosimo's consort, Eleonora of Toledo, in which her gorgeous, minutely observed brocade dress, in monetary terms worth scores of paintings, is as much a protagonist as the Duchess herself."
The portrait influenced 20th century artists, as seen in Frida Kahlo's Portrait of Alicia Galant (1927).
Oil on panel - Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
An Allegory with Venus and Cupid
This allegorical but mysterious painting depicts Venus in the center, her pose contorted to turn her alabaster-smooth torso toward the viewer. A nude Cupid, who is her son from an adulterous affair with Mars, embraces her as his right hand caresses her breast and his left turns her head toward him for a kiss. Cupid universally represents desire, and the artist has shockingly depicted the two as lovers, though the work also seems like a theatrical staging with its two masks, similar to those symbolizing tragedy and comedy, lying discarded on the lower right. Adding to the mystery, to Cupid's left a grimacing haggard figure clutches her head, while, above, a face floats in profile, her hands unfolding the blue swirling cloth of the background. On the right holding a bouquet of bright pink flowers in his uplifted hands, a gleeful putto strides forward. Behind him a chimera combining a girl's face with a disjointed body that seems part animal and part bird, a scorpion's barb on her back, holds out a honeycomb. The meaning of the figures has been much debated, as some scholars identify the chimera with Pleasure and Fraud, the figure on the left tearing its hair with Jealousy, and the putto as Folly. The wrathful man whose head looms at the top right, his arm reaching out as if to tear away the veiling blue cloth, while an hour glass can be seen behind him, seems to be Time. The work presents an erotic riddle, implicating the viewer.
It's thought that Cosimo I commissioned the work to be presented to King Francis I of France. It was intended to appeal to the erotic tastes of the court and Bronzino succeeded through his cold stylization of Venus as a precious alabaster statue, while the luxurious fabrics and the discarded masks, evoke the many carnivals of the time, creating an aristocratic environment, which was part of the work's allure.
Later critics like John Ruskin and Bernard Berenson specifically condemned the work for its artificiality and perversion. However, artists like Jacques-Louis David, Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse, and Giorgio de Chirico, were later inspired by "the master of the mannerist erotic scene," as Morris described Bronzino. The painting has also been a cultural presence, referenced in novels by Iris Murdoch and Robertson Davies, in Yasuko Aoike's manga From Eroica with Love (1976-2010), and Lina Wertmüller's film Seven Beauties (1975).
Oil on wood - National Gallery, London, United Kingdom
The Flight into Egypt
This animated scene depicts the Holy Family being led by an angel into Egypt. The Madonna riding upon a donkey and holding the infant Jesus is central, as her face encircled with white forms the apex of a pyramid. Joseph walks ahead, orange robes billowing around him. The composition's left to right diagonal emphasizes the dynamic movement of their flight. The angel's right hand points downward to a newly sprouting tree, a symbol of the resurrection, while his left hand turns upward as if to convey heaven's guidance. At the same time, the idiosyncratic depiction of the angel in contrast to the more earthy treatments of the other figures emphasizes his otherworldly presence.
Bassano was born in Bassano del Grappa, a small village where his father, also an artist, had a small workshop. Nonetheless, the young artist was aware of the Venetian art of his day, and his work was influenced by Titian's color palette, as well as the prints of Albrecht Dürer. As art critic Roderick Conway Morris wrote, his "increasingly distinctive style [was] born of a complex mix of absorption and innovation...yet he was content to remain in his birthplace, thus preserving a degree of isolation...that allowed his originality to flourish."
Bassano was a pioneer of genre scenes, specifically with Biblical pastorals like this one that included elements of contemporary settings. His picturesque and original style made him one of the most popular and influential of Venetian painters in the mid-1500s. His work was, subsequently, overshadowed, in part due to a proliferation of mediocre copies of his work following his death, but was recently revived with major exhibitions in 2010.
Oil on canvas - Norton Simon Museum
Perseus with the Head of Medusa
This bronze statue shows the Greek mythological hero Perseus, as he holds up the head of Medusa in a gesture of victory, while standing upon her contorted and collapsed body. The overall effect is one of powerful domination and emotional ferocity conveyed eloquently through Perseus's facial expression.
Cosimo I commissioned this work to make a political statement, as Perseus symbolized the Medici domination of Florence. Placed within the central piazza, the work was meant as part of a narrative display of artworks, symbolizing the history of the Medici, which also included Michelangelo's David (1501-1504), Bandinelli's Hercules and Cacus (1525-1534), and Donatello's Judith and Holofernes (1455-1460). Cellini's statue was the first casting of a monumental bronze in fifty years and the first statue since antiquity to have a figurative sculpture forming part of the base. These innovations thus indicated a new era of artistic mastery, and another testament to the power of the ruling family.
The statue has been greatly influential as Antonio Canova and the 18th century Russian sculptor Feodosy Fyodorovich Shchedrin made their own versions of Perseus. The Surrealist Salvador Dalí cast a number of sculptures referencing Cellini's statue, from small works created in series, to large statues like the one displayed on the Avenida del Mar in Marbella, Spain.
Bronze - Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy
The Wedding Feast at Cana
This vibrant and monumental painting depicts the Wedding Feast at Cana where Christ, pictured in the lower center, a halo illuminating his head, performed his first miracle, changing water into wine, after his mother informed him the crowd had run out of wine. The Biblical account leaves out any information about the identity of the couple married at Cana and emphasizes only the miracle at his mother's request. As a result, the event became associated with the beginning of his public ministry, and depictions emphasized the encounter between the sacred miracle of Christ and the profane world. Therefore, here, a teaming crowd is depicted, containing many noted portraits as the group of musicians seated in the lower center are the artists Jacopo Bassano, with the flute, Titian with the violin, Tintoretto with the viola, and Pietro Aretino, a noted poet, standing next to Titian. The guests include most of the era's monarchs including Francis I of France, Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire, and the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. As a result, the work is a vivid portrayal of its time, while simultaneously capturing the feel of a dynamic and festive occasion.
The work was commissioned by the Black Monks of the Order of Saint Benedict for their monastery's refectory, designed by the noted architect Andrea Palladio. The large format with its almost life-sized figures was meant for viewing from below, making the painting's feast a trompe l'oeil extension of the monks' dining area. Stylistically, the ambitious work combines many elements signature to the time. This includes Venetian colorito, emphasizing a vivid color palette, Florentine line, notable in its architectural perspective, and a Mannerist interest in dynamic movement, juxtaposed narratives, and extreme foreshortening in the highly varied poses of the figures. Veronese's ability to seamlessly weave together these elements made his work innovative among the Mannerists, as did his sophisticated sense of composition and vivid contemporaneity.
The inclusion of so much imagery of secular life made the work somewhat scandalous to the public of its time, but Vasari quickly acclaimed Veronese's work. As art critic Laura Cumming wrote, "what is so astonishing is the coherence of his art. There can be 10, 20, sometimes 30 people on the ground level of a Veronese, and then a scattered audience of onlookers staring down from steps and balconies, yet every inch of what ought to bewilderingly diverse is equally strong, equally clear and significant."
Veronese has continued to influence modern culture, as the novelist Henry James wrote, "Never did an artist take a greater delight in life, seeing it all as a kind of breezy festival." In 2009 Peter Greenaway created a multimedia "vision" of this work at the Venice Biennale in his series "Nine Classic Paintings Revisited."
Oil on canvas - Louvre, Paris, France
Rape of the Sabine Women
This famous and influential Mannerist sculpture depicts the violent struggle between three nude figures: a Roman man, his veined back denoting his strength, a nude woman who he seizes as she twists backward, trying to escape, and an older man crouching beneath the Roman in fear. For all its classical treatment that combines a refined finish with anatomical naturalism, the work powerfully conveys sexual aggression through its Mannerist emphasis on the figura serpentinata and expression of terror and helplessness.
The figures create a spiraling vortex with the result that the perspective of the work changes continually as the viewer walks around it. This multiplicity of view, lacking one central frontal view, was a radical innovation.
In 1579 Francesco I, the son of Cosimo I de' Medici, gave Giambologna a large marble block to sculpt a work with a complex group of figures. The sculptor originally intended to create two figures but, subsequently, added a third. The title of the work, only assigned later upon installation in the Loggia dei Lanzi, depicts a mythological account from Roman history when the Romans, then new arrivals in Italy, sought wives from the native Sabine tribes. The Sabines refused, so the Romans staged a festival to honor the god Neptune and invited the tribe in order to abduct the women.
Like the artist's Hercules Beating the Centaur Nessus (1599), which depicts the Greek hero beating the centaur who attempted to rape his wife, this work's violent encounter reflected the deep uncertainty of the times, as sexual violence was extensive in the era's many wars. The dramatic intensity and technological innovation of the piece - its complex treatment of three figures within a single block of marble - had a great influence on subsequent artists, most particularly, Bernini, the leader of the Baroque period, as seen in his The Rape of Proserpina (1621-1622).
Marble - Loggia dei Lanzi, Florence, Italy
The Burial of the Count of Orgaz
This iconic work depicts the burial of the Count of Orgaz, revered in Toledo for his piety and the miracle that attended his death as Saint Stephen and Saint Augustine appeared to bury him and take his spirit to heaven. The work is divided into two realms, the heavens where Christ forms the apex of a pyramid with Mary on the left and St. John the Baptist on the right, and the terrestrial funeral of the lower plane. Dynamic movement results from the contrast between the dark horizontal line of men, all dressed in black, white collars emphasizing their faces, and the swirling verticals of the clouds and heavenly figures, echoed in the gold and red robes of the two saints in the foreground. Bending over as they hold the body of the dead count, his dark armor reflecting the light, the forms of the two saints resemble the curvilinear and enveloping clouds, which are otherworldly, diaphanous membranes.
Andrés Núñez, the priest of El Greco's parish church Santo Tomé, commissioned the work as part of a renovation project of Orgaz's burial chapel. The work is a notable masterpiece of Mannerist portraiture, portraying Núñez, King Phillip II of Spain, a self-portrait of the artist, and a portrait of his son, Jorge Manuel, as well as noted scholars and clergy. However, what matters here is the spiritual gathering, as many of those depicted were those who honored the Count of Orgaz's piety.
El Greco's innovation in Mannerism was to infuse the style with spirituality, creating images that became deeply emblematic interior visions. As a result the work takes on the quality of an unseen vision, perceived by the viewer and only a few among the gathering. The artist's innovative omission of any sense of setting - depicting no horizon or ground or sense of perspective - locates us within the vision itself.
His unique style synthesized the Byzantine tradition in which he was first trained in his native Greece and the Venetian colorito of Titian's workshop where he later worked. As art historian M. Lambraki-Plaka wrote of the work, "El Greco sets before us, in a highly compressed form the wisdom he has brought to his art, his knowledge, his expertise, his composite imagination and his expressive power. It is the living encyclopedia of his art without ceasing to be a masterpiece with organic continuity and entelechy."
Of all the Mannerists, El Greco had the greatest influence on modern art, as Eugène Delacroix, Édouard Manet, and Paul Cézanne rediscovered his work in the 1800's. His work influenced the development of Expressionism, and, most notably, was a singular influence upon Pablo Picasso and the development of Cubism.
Oil on canvas - Iglesia de Santo Tomé, Toledo, Spain
View of Toledo
This masterful landscape depicts a view of Toledo, with the Tagus River flowing from the lower right up through the center of the work, where its serpentine curve is echoed by the green curves of the surrounding hills. The Alcántara Bridge intersects the low center, connecting the Castle of San Servando on the left, with the city's line of diagonal buildings that ascend on the right, its towers and spires outlined by a stormy sky, its grey clouds opening to patches of white and deep blue. Rather than depicting the city naturalistically, the artist has reconfigured the city, moving a few buildings to create a kind of emblematic view. The rhythmic curvilinear forms and interplay of glowing dark greens, contrasting with the nearly black horizon, the illuminated grey of the buildings and the white edges of cloud, create a sense of a living landscape, pulsing with a somber mysticism. Almost imperceptibly the landscape is populated. Monks gather in front of the monastery on the left below center. A man on horseback crosses the river, as along the bank three men are spear fishing and a number of people are gathered on the shore. These figures are rendered precisely, sometimes with a single brushstroke, but in terms of their cyclical activity rather than their individuality, conveying human presence as simply part of the landscape itself.
At the time he painted this work, the Counter Reformation in 1563 at the Council of Trent had confined art for religious subjects and purposes and banned landscape painting. In defying the ban, El Greco pioneered Spanish landscape painting, but also demonstrated that deep spirituality could be expressed in the genre. The dark brooding of the impending storm both shadows and illuminates the landscape, as if this city where El Greco settled and did much of his work was under a dark forbidding divine wrath. Diego Rivera, Ignacio Zuloaga, David Bomberg, Chaïm Soutine, and André Masson, all painted landscapes referencing this work, as seen in Masson's Emblematic View of Toledo (1942).
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum, New York, New York